(CN) — During the Covid-19 pandemic, 3D printers have been widely used to produce face shields, respirators and other personal protective equipment, but the manufacturing device also poses some health hazards for humans, according to new research presented Tuesday.
While the technology behind the devices has existed for decades, major advancements have allowed 3D printers to enjoy sweeping popularity in recent years. As 3D printers have become more cost effective and accessible, they are more frequently appearing in homes, businesses and schools across the world.
This popularity has grown even further as the world continues to grapple with Covid-19, given that 3D printers have proven to be well-suited to manufacturing respirators, face coverings and other types of protective equipment that have become crucial tools in a world gripped by a pandemic.
Despite their widespread popularity and use, there are some questions over safety hazards 3D printers may pose for some individuals.
In an effort to answer some of these questions, scientists at the annual meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis on Tuesday presented new research into the potential hazards of 3D printers and how they could harm the human body.
Peter Byrley, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who led one of the studies presented on Tuesday, says that these research efforts are in part being conducted to help inform the public on an issue that has largely gone undiscussed, particularly as it relates to children.
"To date, the general public has little awareness of possible exposures to 3D printer emissions," Byrley said with the release of the study. "A potential societal benefit of this research is to increase public awareness of 3D printer emissions, and of the possibly higher susceptibility of children."
Researchers specifically investigated the potential dangers of particles that are emitted from a 3D printer during use. During the printing process, which can often take several hours depending on the size and complexity of the object being created, tiny partialized by-products from the process can be released into the air and potentially inhaled by nearby people.
What researchers found when they examined these particles is that while they may be small, they may not be harmless. Experts report that because these particles are coming from manufacturing materials like thermoplastics and metals, they can be at least moderately toxic to human lungs.
Compounding this issue further is that researchers found that kids may be at a greater risk from these particles. In a simulation that sought to look at the emissions from filament extruders, a type of device that creates certain filaments inside 3D printers, data showed that the particles can settle at a greater rate inside the lung if that human is nine years old or younger.
Researchers also explored how 3D printers contribute to the issue of plastic pollution around the world, especially in and around Earth’s oceans. This led scientists to investigate how the materials inside plastic react to the environment or the organs of fish after being eaten.
"This research can help set regulations on how much nanomaterial fillers can be added to particular consumer products, based on their [Matrix Release Factor] value," said Joana Maria Sipe, a doctoral student at Duke University. "The data can help determine how much plastic and/or nano-filled products release contaminants into the environment or the human body."
Sipe developed a machine to measure how much a plastic product breaks down through rubbing and sanding during use and in the environment.
Researchers stress that there is still much more to learn about 3D printers’ potential hazards, and the public, users and manufacturers alike need to be aware of the potential health effects of the technology and work towards developing ways to help control the risks moving forward.
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